Thursday, October 31, 2002

Spokane

Painting goes bump in the night
Spokane artist's work has become so hyped on Internet it's scary

Jim Kershner
Staff writer

photo
Holly Pickett - The Spokesman-Review
Spokane graphic artist Bill Stoneham painted ``The Hands Resist Him'' in 1973. Since then, the work has taken on a life of its own, spawning tales of the supernatural on the Internet.
At a glance
ONLINE

Web haunts
Here are some of the Web sites devoted to the ``Haunted Painting of eBay'': www.stonehamstudios. com (Stoneham's own site) www.surfingtheapocalypse. com/haunted_painting.html www.strangenation. com.au/articles/canvaskids.htm.

Gather 'round the campfire, kids, because we're going to tell you the story of "The Haunted Painting of eBay."

Like any good ghost story, this one has a surprise twist. A Spokane twist.

However, the first half of the story takes place either in the World Wide Web or the Twilight Zone, take your pick.

In February 2000, an anonymous couple from California posted a surreal painting on the online auction site eBay. The painting showed a little boy and little girl standing in front of a door. Disembodied hands floated in the blackness behind the door. In addition, something about the little girl was not quite right. Her joints were hinged like an old-fashioned doll, and she was holding an object with wires sticking out of the top. Was it a weapon?

Yet the painting was not overtly Gothic or frightening. The frightening part was below it, in the story written by the sellers.

They said they found it abandoned behind an old brewery. They took it home and
hung it in their 4-year-old daughter's room.

One morning the daughter complained that the two children in the painting were "fighting" and "coming into the room at night."

Alarmed, the father set up a motion-triggered camera in the room for the next three nights. The camera shot several photos, one of which showed the little boy "seemingly exiting the painting under threat."

The pictures, which also were posted on the site, are dark and open to interpretation. But if you use your imagination, you might think that the little boy is walking out of the frame while the "Chuckie"-like doll-girl holds a weapon on him.

"We decided the painting had to go," wrote the sellers, who added that they would not be responsible for any "events happening after the sale."

The painting became a Web phenomenon. At least

30,000 people viewed the Web page, and a handful reported that they had experienced strange events just looking at the painting on their computers.

One reported hearing an exorcist-type voice, along with a blast of hot air. Another reported that he became ill while viewing the painting and had to burn white sage to cleanse his house afterward. Another reported "blackout/mind control experiences."

The sellers backtracked before the auction was over and wrote, "There are no ghosts in this world, no supernatural powers, this is just a painting, and most of these things have an explanation, in this case, probably a fluke light effect."

This hardly deterred the true believers. Numerous Web sites and chat rooms devoted to the legendary "Haunted Painting of eBay" popped up.

Nobody was more flabbergasted by this legend than Bill Stoneham, a 55-year-old Spokane computer-graphics artist who works for Cyan Worlds, the company that created the best-selling computer games Myst and Riven.

Stoneham, you see, was the guy who painted this artwork, 30 years ago.

"The Haunted Painting of eBay" is actually "Hands Resist Him," a painting Stoneham sold to a California gallery in 1973 and didn't see again.

At least until August 2001, when the owner of the Perceptions Gallery in Grand Rapids, Mich., e-mailed Stoneham. The gallery had bought the painting from the California couple on eBay for $1,200, and the owner had tracked him down from a label on the back of the painting. He advised Stoneham to check out the various Web pages.

Stoneham was spooked, all right, but not for the same reasons.

"Suddenly, there's a blown-up image of my face from the painting," he said. "Now, that was a creepy feeling."

He was, in fact, the little boy in the painting, which he had painted from an old, faded family photo of himself with a little neighbor girl.

Then he started reading about the "haunted" lore. His first reaction was to think, "Why would they hang that in the kid's bedroom?"

His second reaction was to wonder how this painting had sparked such a ghost-storm. When he painted it, he said he had deliberately used Jungian and metaphysical symbolism. The door represented a gate to possibilities, and the hands represented "other lives."

He never intended it to be spooky, supernatural or even particularly disturbing. As for the "weapon," he said it was a dry-cell battery with wires coming out the top, like the ones he used as a kid for his model planes.

Since then, the "haunted" painting has changed his life in many ways. It inspired him to start his own Web page and to begin painting again for the first time in more than a decade. He said the strong reaction to his painting, even if not what he intended, was flattering.

He is enjoying a degree of fame, and not just on the Web. A radio talk show host in Dallas, Jessie Jessup on KDGE-FM, is running a "Haunted Painting" contest in which listeners are sending in essays about the painting. Entries will be judged on "creative creepiness" and chosen on the air today, Halloween.

Stoneham is one of the judges, and he has found reading the entries to be unsettling.

"People are getting very carried away, saying that the kid (in the painting) was abused by drunken parents, that sort of thing," said Stoneham. "It's like being in a coma in a roomful of people who are all speculating on your life."

Meanwhile, he has entered into an agreement with the Perceptions Gallery to sell limited edition prints of "Hands Resist Him" for $450 each, or a smaller version for $185.

One of those prints hangs on the wall in his south Spokane Victorian home.

Has this print ever spawned any, you know, freaky occurrences?

"Well," said Stoneham, thinking for a moment. "When we moved it here from my old apartment, the U-Haul broke down."


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